Local Finance Board questions attorney’s fee

TRENTON – The Local Finance Board gave its approval for a $15 million Middlesex County Improvement Authority bond package but not without first reiterating last month’s criticisms regarding the MCIA chief’s salary and perks and raising new questions today about county attorney and authority fees.

The Finance Board – which can’t prevent the MCIA from spending the money on the fees but can express its disapproval – gave its concurrence to the application but added its findings that the $60,000 in authority fees and $15,000 in attorney fees are unreasonable.

Last month, Board Chairman Thomas Neff criticized the $210,000 salary and perks of MCIA Executive Director Richard Pucci and the board withheld its stamp of approval pending further review.

During today’s meeting, Neff raised fresh concerns about possible double-dipping regarding a $15,000 fee in the MCIA application for county counsel Thomas Kelso, who Neff said is a salaried county employee earning roughly $168,000 a year.

Kelso could not be reached immediately for comment.

“The county counsel payment strikes me as something that needs a lot more review, either by us or by the Comptroller’s office, to determine whether it is appropriate or reasonable,” Neff said. “It looks like double dipping to me.  It’s disgusting, every bit as disgusting as the executive director’s salary.”

In addition, Neff said MCIA filed an OPRA request with the Division of Local Government Services for hundreds of pages of documents, and Neff questioned who is paying for that legal bill.

“Are the fees going to be used to pay for this fishing expedition? It sounded like something done to intimidate us and make us go away.”

Neff said, however, they are not going away and are going to keep raising such questions regarding MCIA and other authorities as well when expenditures do not seem appropriate.

Board member Idida Rodriguez added that these types of fees have been an issue for years with some of the authorities, and Neff said, as he has in the past, that this is a practice that the Board is going to be paying closer attention to.

The bond application is for capital purchases by various municipalities, and Neff said he wanted assurances that these legal fees  are not being charged to towns against the financing.

The bond application involves projects by the county, the authority and several towns for such things as a nursing home or capital purchases such as police cars. Old Bridge had been one of the participating municipalities but withdrew, Neff said.

In addition, the Board attached other findings.

In addition to stating that the Board found that the counsel and authority fees were not reasonable, the Board also asked for a post-closure report to be filed, something that explains what was actually spent.

Also, the Board would like the participating towns to submit something that shows that due diligence was done, that they shopped around for the best deal and were not “politically” directed to participate in an authority application.

The Board also raised a question regarding MCIA’s practice of not requiring municipalities to have a formal bond ordinance resolution, and not having towns provide a down payment when usually one is required in bond ordinances. “Skipping a down payment on a capital acquisition is something that is frowned upon,’’ Neff said.

“We’re not suggesting MCIA is doing something nefarious or inappropriate or illegal, but it is an issue and was never resolved before this board.’’

Local Finance Board questions attorney’s fee